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Saoirse Ronan is a past master at the runners-up poker face

Paul Whitington


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Saoirse Ronan attends the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Saoirse Ronan attends the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Saoirse Ronan attends the 92nd Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood and Highland on February 09, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

At the age of just 25, Saoirse Ronan has an incredible four Oscar nominations to her credit, but was once again eclipsed at the final hurdle.

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Her superb performance in Little Women was widely praised, and she would have been a worthy winner of the Best Actress award. But Greta Gerwig’s film fell from favour quite early in the awards season, and lost momentum while other film - like 1917, Joker and Parasite - gained ground.

At this stage Saoirse is a past master at the runners-up poker face, which she had to assume as recently as 2018 when she lost out to Frances McDormand in the best actress category.

She’ll have known she was a long shot this time given how the other awards nights have gone, and besides, she should be consoled by the fact that she’s in very good company.

Peter O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar on eight occasions, but never won. O’Toole’s drinking buddy, the great Welsh actor Richard Burton, was nominated seven times but came away empty-handed.

Johnny Depp has four nominations and no wins; Robert Redford, nominated once, nothing; Cary Grant, not a sausage. Judy Garland never won, nor did Barbara Stanwyck, and Marilyn Monroe wasn’t even nominated.

Kirk Douglas, who died last week, was nominated for magnificent performances in Champion, Lust for Life and Bad and the Beautiful, but had to make do with an honorary Oscar presented to him when he was 80.

Will Saoirse have to wait that long? I hope not, but Glenn Close offers a sobering warning. She’s been nominated six times, most recently for her superb performance in The Wife, but has never won. And the great 1950s actress Deborah Kerr also earned six nominations, but never got to give an acceptance speech.

It’s an error the level-headed Saoirse’s unlikely to make, but it would be a mistake to assess one’s acting career in terms of Oscar wins, because the Academy Awards are essentially a lottery.

The Oscars are the apogee of a film industry back-slapping festival that begins in early January with the Golden Globes. Less than 100 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press awards vote in the Globes, but because they come first they often have a big bearing on what follows.

This year 1917 won best drama and best director, Joaquin Phoenix won best actor, Renee Zellweger best actress, and that pattern has tended to repeat itself.

As the actors, directors and producers move on to the SAGs, the DGAs and the BAFTAs, it’s all too often a case of history repeating itself, with voters in subsequent awards swayed by the earlier successes of actors and films. And by the time the 7,000-odd Academy members get down to the business of voting, there’s an awful lot of previous success to sway their opinions.

Brad Pitt, for instance, would for me have been a long shot for all the best supporting actor awards up against the heavyweight likes of Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. But his Globes win seems to have tipped the scales in his favour.

The success of Renee Zellweger this awards season is poignant given the fact that the woman she plays in Judy never won an Oscar. But she was supposed to. Judy Garland’s barnstorming turn in A Star is Born (1954) was described by Time magazine as “the greatest one-woman show in modern movie history”.

She was so good in it that everyone decided she was a shoe-in for Best Actress. Judy was unable to attend the Academy Awards that year because she’d just given birth, so TV cameras were set up around her bed to cover the moment she won. But she didn’t: rank outsider Grace Kelly was chosen for The Country Girls instead. Groucho Marx consoled Garland in a letter, saying that it was “the biggest robbery since Brinks”.

Maybe so, but when it comes to the Oscars nothing’s ever in the bag, as Saoirse Ronan knows all too well.

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